“Explorers of the Infinite” asks a basic question: Why?
Ask mountaineers why they are compelled to climb, and more often than not their answer is, “Tt makes me feel alive.” But what does this mean? And what is it about this feeling that makes some climbers repeatedly court death to experience it? In Explorers of the Infinite, I argue that, unwittingly or not, mountaineers are on a spiritual quest. The ‘aliveness’ they describe is that state of transcendence that we all crave, and find through different ways: meditation, prayer, sex, music, horse riding, skiing, jogging, dancing…any activity that lifts us above the mundane and, briefly, into a different level of consciousness.
Since ancient times, mystics of all spiritual traditions have gone out into the wilds and used fear, suffering, and focus to expand their consciousness, to touch the divine. Some climbers admit to doing the same. “If God’s anywhere, He/She is in the mountains,” says Stephen Koch in Explorers of the Infinite. “A place that scares the shit out of you—that’s where God is, I think. That’s why we go and push it.”
Like those ancient mystics, mountaineers open themselves up to the vagaries of nature, fine tune their intuition and push themselves to the very limit. They break the boundaries of what is deemed physically possible by pushing beyond ordinary human consciousness into another realm. For some, this brings a deeply peaceful, satisfying feeling, a sense of connectedness with a world that is often called spiritual. For others, like the Mexican mountaineer Carlos Carsolio, it’s a portal to what he calls “moments of extended reality” when he can access powers generally considered “paranormal.”
In 1985, Carsolio was climbing Nanga Parbat with a Polish team, attempting the south spur of the Rupal Face, the biggest mountain wall in the world. Conditions were dreadful, with blizzards so dense that often the men lost sight of each other. Throughout the ascent they communicated by two-way radio, and their conversations were recorded by people at base camp. Before they reached the top of the face, their food and fuel ran out. During their desperate descent, they all felt very close to death.
Back at base camp, as they recovered from the ordeal, they listened to the recordings of their conversations. They were shocked. The Polish climbers spoke no Spanish and Carsolio spoke no Polish, so normally they conversed in English. During the final part of their ascent, however, and on the way down the mountain, they had all been speaking in their native languages. Listening to the tapes, the Poles couldn’t understand Carsolio and he couldn’t understand them.
“But when we were up there we had understood each other perfectly,” says Carsolio. “We had opened some channels to another level of communication.”
Carsolio believes it was a form of telepathy, which, like other paranormal phenomena he has experienced, happens under conditions of focus, fear, and suffering,.
“When a climb was not so demanding I never had these experiences. But when it was really extreme, especially when you were on the edge of dying, somehow in that moment, Poof! The channel is open.”
A channel, he claims, that can lead to communication with the dead. After his solo ascent of Makalu in 1988, while struggling down the mountain at night and during a blizzard, Carsolio is convinced he was guided by the ghost of a climber who had perished on its slopes. Accessing such “moments of extended reality” was the main motivation for his audacious ascents of the world’s 14 highest mountains, without oxygen.
“One thing I know for sure,” he said. “Once you have these experiences it gets easier to reach them again. You open the channel. I looked for such moments in every expedition. It’s why I wanted to climb alone and to do such hard routes. It’s a kind of spiritual addiction.”
During my research for Explorers of the Infinite, I was surprised by the number of climbers who, in interviews, suddenly opened about paranormal experiences they’d had in extreme conditions.
“One winter in the 1990s, I was soloing Les Droites, a 3,000-foot face, one of the hardest in the Alps,” British alpinist Andy Parkin told me. “I was aware of the vast expanse of this face, it was very harsh, very cold, but I was moving like the wind, totally at ease, totally confident. Then, when I was about halfway up, suddenly I was looking at myself. It was like I was floating out in space, watching myself climb. There was a part of me still on the face thinking, Come back here, this is not a good moment to drift off. I had to force myself to pull back into my own body. It didn’t happen because I was gripped—you can’t allow yourself that emotion when you’re soloing. But I was in a state of hyper-awareness. It’s happened occasionally when I’ve been in that state. Maybe it’s a chemical thing. I really don’t know.”
A lot of the climbers in the book had previously kept quiet about such experiences, in case they would be seen as crazy. Until our interview, Lou Whittaker, a veteran North American mountaineer, had told few people about the spirit that regularly visited him in his base camp tent while he was leading the first American expedition to climb Kanchenjunga, in 1989.
“I’d look around and think, Who’s here? Then I would feel the presence of a Tibetan woman. There were no Tibetan women at base camp. But she was there every night. She was middle-aged, and dressed traditionally. It wasn’t a strong image, more a sensation. There was nothing sexual about it. She was a friendly spirit, able to share my concerns. I felt she was communicating, without words, that everything was okay.”
While he was on the mountain, his wife, Ingrid, was also in the area, leading a trek as far as his base camp. Eager to see him, she persuaded her group to skip the last resting stage of the trek and go straight from 12,000 to 16,000 feet in one day. It was a mistake. By the time they reached the base camp, Ingrid was suffering from altitude sickness. For the next three days she had such an appalling headache that she never left Lou’s tent. But she wasn’t alone there. In the daytime, when Lou was climbing, she was kept company by a Tibetan woman.
“I always felt this local woman with me,” she recalled. “She was wearing a headscarf and a long dress. She was shadowy and two-dimensional, like a silhouette. It was a good presence, very comforting. She would put her hand on my forehead and help me roll over. She was just kind of hovering around and helpful the whole time. She didn’t speak but there was always a feeling of kindness, that this was a good person who was going to take care of me. It was like we were communicating mind to mind, without words. I thought, Oh my God, I’m really sick, I’m hallucinating, I’m losing it, I’ll probably die. I didn’t tell Lou about it; I was in such a lot of pain, we hardly spoke to each other the whole time I was there.”
Once she managed to stagger down to a lower altitude, her symptoms abated. Two months later, when Lou returned to North America after the expedition, they talked about her visit to base camp. Hesitantly, Ingrid told Lou about the presence in the tent.
“That’s weird,” he replied. “I had the same feeling. This woman was there with me in the tent for the whole three months.”
They are both convinced that it wasn’t a hallucination. It was a real presence. When I recounted their story to Dr. Pierre Mayer, however, he shrugged and said, “Hypnagogic dreams.” Mayer, an expert in respiratory medicine and sleep disorders, has taken part in several mountaineering expeditions to the Alps, the Andes, and the Himalaya. As director of CHUM, the Sleep Disorders Investigation Center and Clinic of Montreal University Hospital, he is conducting research into dreams and hypoxia, At altitude, he explained, it is common for sleep cycles to be irregular and disturbed, something that in Ingrid’s case was compounded by illness. Such disturbances made her and Lou more prone to having hypnagogic dreams, which are often reported as hallucinations, varying from poorly formed shapes to vivid images of people and animals. They happen mostly at the onset of sleep or during periods of relaxed wakefulness. Similar dreams known as hypnopompic occur at sleep offset. Both can be experienced in successive sleep cycles.
But this doesn’t explain why the couple both sensed the same Tibetan woman. What does Lou Whittaker think?
“There is such old history on Kanchenjunga,” he said. “I think she was a strong spirit that had enough influence to break through our reserves and make us feel that she was there.”
At the Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience in Lausanne, Switzerland, scientists have been studying the link between mystical experiences and cognitive neuroscience. They point out that the fundamental revelations to the founders of the three monotheistic religions— Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed—occurred on mountains, and included such components as feeling a presence, seeing a figure, hearing voices, and seeing lights. These similarities of experience suggest to the scientists that exposure to altitude might affect functions relying on brain areas such as the temporoparietal junction and the prefrontal cortex. Prolonged stays at high altitude, especially when linked to social deprivation, can lead to prefrontal lobe dysfunctions, which are commonly found during ecstatic experiences. Also, the physical and emotional stresses of climbing at altitude release endorphins, which are known to lower the threshold for temporal lobe epilepsy, which in turn might evoke such experiences. All such phenomena, then, might relate to “abnormal body processing.”
Greg Child has a simpler theory. “Going to blow-your-mind high altitude creates a world inside of ourselves. When you’re down here you’re not so tuned into the same things as when you’re up high or in some extreme circumstances, wondering if you’re going to make it through the next few hours.”
Adrian Burgess puts it even more succinctly. “The higher you go, the more weird things get.” He’s skeptical about the idea of ghosts and spirits on mountains. “In some places I climb, if the ghosts of dead friends were coming to visit me there would be so many of them it would be pretty crowded. I mean, if it was true, the entire Alpine hut system would be crawling with howlers. Anyway, thankfully none of them have ever tapped on the tent door. I’d be scared shitless.”
Before I set out to write Explorers of the Infinite I was a fence sitter about all things spiritual, mystical, and paranormal, teetering toward the side of rationalism. As I researched the book, gathering bizarre stories from adventurers, garnering the opinions of neuroscientists on paranormal phenomena, I found myself on a journey back and forth between wonder and science, mystery and explanation. I greatly respect the scientific method. I also respect the weight of anecdote, the veracity of shared experience. I’m convinced that there are phenomena and levels of human consciousness that science, is, as yet, at a loss to explain. Which is not to say that one day it won’t come up with a perfectly rational explanation for such strange things as Nick Est- court’s uncanny premonition of his own death:
When he spotted his friend in the departure lounge at Heathrow Airport, Jim Duff sensed something was wrong.
Some of the climbers noticed that “Nick was as pale as a ghost,” he recalls. “He looked really gripped. I asked him if he was okay and he said, “Jim, I’ve got a terrible feeling that I won’t be coming back from this trip.”
As the doctor on the 1978 British expedition to climb K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, Duff thought his duties would begin when the team, led by Chris Bonington and including Joe Tasker, Peter Boardman, and Doug Scott, arrived in Pakistan. He expected stomach ailments, sprained muscles, and high-altitude sickness. He didn’t expect a case of pre-expedition nerves—especially from Nick Estcourt, an experienced mountaineer with an ebullient personality. Duff prescribed a couple of stiff brandies from the bar.
“This was only my third Himalayan expedition,” he says. “I didn’t really listen to what Nick was telling me. A year or so later, I would have told him to rip up his plane ticket and go home. Before you’ve had these intuitive experiences, you don’t really trust them.”
During the long march into base camp, the two men shared a tent. One morning, Estcourt woke up and recounted a strange dream. He had been caught in an avalanche and was buried under deep snow. He was looking down on the scene and Doug Scott was in the debris, poking among blocks of ice, searching for him.
“He said he knew it was Doug,” says Duff, “even though he looked like a snow groomer. We laughed about that. I wrote about his dream in my journal, and I drew a little cartoon of a snow groomer with Doug’s face on it. I didn’t take it seriously.”
A couple of weeks later, Duff was at Camp 1, along with Bonington. Earlier in the day, Estcourt, Scott, and a Hunza high-altitude porter, Quamajan, had left to start ferrying loads up to Camp 2 in support of the lead climbers, Tasker and Boardman. It was a perfect afternoon, the wind calm and the sky clear. Duff was outside his tent, relaxing in the sunshine, when a thunderous boom ripped through the peace of the day. Above and to the right of the camp, an avalanche was pouring over some ice cliffs and down the slope leading to Camp 2.
“It was enormous,” says Duff. “A mega-avalanche. I’ve never seen anything that scale, before or since.”
Bonington picked up his camera and started taking photos; he was sure the three load- carriers were out of the line of avalanche. Duff felt differently.
“I screamed at him to stop. I told him that one of our lads was in there. I just knew.” Crossing the slope, Scott had been in the lead. While he broke trail, Estcourt and Quamajan rested and shared a cigarette. Quamajan was second on the rope, but just before he set off, Estcourt insisted on trading places. Scott reached the far side, and Estcourt was halfway across, when Quamajan heard a cracking sound and saw the top of the slope fracture into giant jigsaw pieces—the sign of a dangerous wind slab avalanche. He saw the whole slope start to slide. He saw Estcourt overwhelmed by huge blocks of ice. He tried to hold the rope that attached them—later, the burn marks on his hands would attest to his struggle. Meanwhile, on the other end of the rope, Scott was whipped into the avalanche, cartwheeling backward. Suddenly, he landed hard on the slope. The rope had snapped. Beneath him, the mass of snow and ice poured down 4,000 feet to the glacier, taking Estcourt with it.
The team called off the expedition. Next day, at first light, they all headed back to advance base. Scott and Duff went first.
“We got down to the glacier,” says Duff, “and Doug unclipped from the rope and started stomping around in the avalanche debris, searching for traces of Nick. I was worried about him being out there, unroped. I was sitting on my haunches, calling to him to come back, when suddenly I thought—This is Nick’s dream. It’s exactly what he described to me.”
Duff is a physician, a scientist, but he’s convinced that Estcourt had an awareness of his impending death, that he tapped into some level of consciousness where the future was revealed. How this could be possible, none of us knows. Chemically induced changes based on focus, fear, suffering, and the ravages of altitude take us only part of the way. The rest of the journey is still an alluring mystery, for scientists and adventurers alike.
This article was adapted from Explorers of the Infinite: The Secret Spiritual Lives of Extreme Athletes (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2008).
A NOTE ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Maria Coffey is the author of 12 books, including Explorers of the Infinite, which contributed to Coffey winning the 2009 American Alpine Club Literary Award. She has also written on mountaineering themes in Fragile Edge: Loss on Everest (Mountaineers Books) and Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow: The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure (St. Martins Press). Coffey lives with her husband Dag Goering on Vancouver Island. For the last two decades they have wandered the globe together, pioneering kayak expeditions in remote destinations and establishing Hidden Places, an adventure travel company that runs trips in places such as Vietnam, Croatia, Norway, the Galapagos Islands, and Antarctica. Coffey’s website is: www.hiddenplaces.net